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Are you an ‘Overt Feminist’?

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Despite establishing herself as one of the leading figures of modern art, throughout her life, Niki de Saint Phalle was labelled too feminine, too emotional and too overtly feminist. These are labels that the bestselling Water Cure author Sophie Mackintosh knows all too well. In this first person piece, she explores what it means to have your feminism marginalised.

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Image Courtesy Niki de Saint Phalle

We're not fond of the hysterical woman when it comes to art; we’re not historically sympathetic to women’s pain generally.

Art which centres the female experience is art which opens itself up to being dismissed. I was reminded of this instinctively when I saw the work of Niki de Saint Phalle referred to as ‘overtly' feminist. It wasn’t a criticism, but reminded me of my own experience - that if we make a conscious or unconscious decision to focus on the stories of women, to centre them, it's a political statement whether we want it to be or not. And it’s often one that risks reducing us, and what we create. There’s plenty of art centring male experiences and plenty where women feature only as muse or object, but men don't tend to be asked the question of: why are there so many women in your work? Centring female experience, then, can still feel like a process of asserting what experiences matter, what art matters. But when you're making it, you have power over the narrative, the expression of saying even the unsayable. You’re in control.

For me it's amazing to see and start to understand, when you look at of Niki de Saint Phalle's work as whole, how embracing the complexities of the imaginably vast female experience - and of being curious and receptive to understanding and supporting the experiences of others - was so clearly a lifelong creative process for her, something she always found new ways to explore. These experiences were crucial to her art in a way that she refused to downplay, and refused to compromise or be disregarded for.

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Image Courtesy Niki de Saint Phalle

Her early works move from eerie, plaster-coated assemblages full of doll pieces and kitchen instruments, or figures with targets for heads, into her famous Tirs series, paintings and performances both, where she and others would fire at the works, allowing paint to bleed violently onto the page. They are playful, and they're angry too. They might represent Saint Phalle taking pot-shots at the structures that allowed her male contemporaries total freedom, while she had already suffered a breakdown, and was struggling with both childhood abuse and her expected position in family life. So she took a gun to her chaotic, violent works, made them bleed, and made others participate in the spectacle alongside her, and in the process found recognition. Art allowed her this.

We're not fond of the hysterical woman when it comes to art; we’re not historically sympathetic to women’s pain generally. As a society we both simultaneously scorn confessional modes, and ghoulishly demand women spill their trauma. With every retrospective of a female artist, every life's work displayed, I can’t help but find myself thinking about the other roles they had to balance. How do these roles, these experiences, make themselves known in the work? But also, how do they, and we, hold onto ourselves; to balance the centring of these vital experiences with vulnerability and scrutiny? Saint Phalle found art while she was in a psychiatric hospital, and it gave her both a way to express herself and a vision for her entire future. It gave her back control of her own story.

But pain and the working through of it has a transformative power. Centring subjects seen as less important for so long has power. And the playfulness and joy with which Niki de Saint Phalle brings to this centring is subversive, too, in its simplicity. The vast monumental women of her Nanas, her later work, seem at first native and celebratory. However they are also vast, solid sculptures which take up space, which can't be ignored. (She once told an interviewer, “I think that I made them so large so that men would look very small next to them.”)

I knew that when I published my first novel, about three sisters who had never encountered men living on an island, that the focus on female pain and trauma might see some people to dismiss it.

Niki de Saint Phalle's life work was her Tarot Garden, a Gaudi-inspired sculpture park full of monumental sculptures based around the symbols of the tarot. It took her over two decades to complete. She imagined it as a magic space where people could feel free, where the usual rules didn't apply, where magic and possibility reigned. In these kind of new worlds and new spaces, life could be different. Huge, dreamlike figures of women fill the landscape. The traditional conservative and feminine values she had been pushing back against her whole life could (almost) be forgotten in such a space of symbol, colour and unapologetic femininity. She understood that new spaces and new approaches were needed, and that art could be a way to make them a reality. 

I knew that when I published my first novel, about three sisters who had never encountered men living on an island, that the focus on female pain and trauma might see some people to dismiss it. When it was nominated for the Booker prize, my astonishment and happiness was partly due to surprise and gratefulness that it hadn't been. But I also saw reactions that spanned a range from people who believed it was not worthy of the nomination as it was ‘shallow’ or ‘hysterical', to men on far-right internet message boards discussing the violence they would like to inflict upon me. But there are so many stories in the world that deserve to be told, so many ways to tell them. Niki de Sant Phalle’s fascination with these experiences, translating both pain and celebration into work that can't be ignored, and even creating new spaces of possibility, created art that was generous, expansive, and impossible to disregard.

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Image Courtesy Niki de Saint Phalle